No Relief: Wave Of Attacks, Police Indifference Heighten Fears Among Ukraine's Roma

LVIV, Ukraine -- Mykola Yurchenko recalls the time, in this western Ukrainian city, when he literally had to pay the price for being a Roma.

It was a winter day one year after the Soviet collapse in 1991, with a lawless capitalism emerging from the collapsed communist economy.

A police officer showed up at the store where the young newlywed with an engineering degree was trying to make a living selling fur hats. The officer ordered Yurchenko to hand over $100 in cash to an elderly woman who he said had been robbed by "some Gypsy." The sum was enough to support a family for months, and Yurchenko refused.

The cop responded by threatening Yurchenko's wife and advising him to "go to your people and collect a dollar from each of them," he says.

"I had to pay the money," Yurchenko, now a mustachioed 50-year-old, recounts over a coffee a stone's throw from some of central Lviv's architectural gems, built under Polish and Habsburg rule.

Within seven years of that run-in with the unscrupulous cop, Yurchenko had founded a Romany advocacy group called Ternipe (Youth) to help young Roma find better education and employment and overcome the discrimination that so many Romany Ukrainians face.

That broader hostility has been on stark display in recent months in two major cities, Kyiv and Lviv, where self-proclaimed nationalists have launched attacks on at least four Romany encampments.

In the first case, in April, police initially declined to investigate until video circulated of thugs from the right-wing C14 group, armed with clubs and chemical spray, torching makeshift shelters in a nature reserve in the capital, sending panicked families fleeing. (It later emerged that C14 gets Ukrainian government grants to promote "national-patriotic education projects.")

In the latest incident, in early June, police mostly looked on or chatted amicably with the attackers after right-wingers turned up with axes and hammers to raze another temporary settlement of Romany families.

Entrenched Feelings

As in many countries in the former communist bloc, where social payments were routinely used to paper over yawning cultural and educational gaps, Roma in Ukraine are the target of persistent stereotyping.

"I always stay away from Gypsies," says Olena Fomenko, a 54-year-old music teacher from the capital. "Any time I see a Gypsy woman, I avoid eye contact and never answer their questions, [I] just keep going without looking at them."

Even young Ukrainians with more exposure to the notions of liberal democracy and tolerance profess a dislike for Roma, with polls in recent years suggesting around half of those aged 14 to 35 don't want Romany neighbors.

Such antipathy is not lost on the tens or hundreds (depending on who you believe) of thousands of Roma in this post-Soviet country of 44 million people.

"These little jokes about Romany: Can you sing? Can you dance? Can you ride a horse? What about stealing? Where's your gold?" Ivan Korzhov*, a sturdily built 27-year-old IT professional, tells RFE/RL.

Currently a regional director for Infopulse, a technical-solutions provider that claims to be one of Ukraine's largest IT outsourcing companies, he recalls that before his first day of elementary school his parents instructed him not to tell anyone he was a Rom.

Korzhov says Yurchenko's Ternipe organization helped him get his start through an internship at a government office in Lviv.

Even now, he adds, "Some educated, tolerant Ukrainians tell me, 'You're just fine, integrated, you're a Rom; those others are unintegrated, uneducated, they're Gypsies."

That is practically a rule of thumb for Ukrainians like Lviv resident Roksolana Lisovska.

In January, Lisovska founded a vigilante group called Lovtsi, or Catchers. She told reporters at the time that she and her fellow enforcers would patrol the city’s streets to "prevent Gypsies from stealing from our pockets and purses."

"My attitude to Romany is normal -- to Gypsies, negative," the 26-year-old psychologist tells RFE/RL. "Roma are the people whose ethnicity I respect; Gypsies are the bad people who don't deserve respect and whose work I prevent."

After Yurchenko complained to police about Lovtsi's activities and met with Lisovska to explain that her language was offensive, she removed references to "Gypsies" from the group's online presence. She insists the raids discouraged some thieves and pickpockets but declines to share photos or any other details about the patrols.

Mixed Bag

There are fewer than 50,000 Roma in Ukraine, according to the country's latest census, conducted in 2011.

But Yurchenko puts the actual number closer to 300,000 among nearly a dozen sub-ethnic groups of strikingly different linguistic, cultural, and religious backgrounds.

Some are Hungarian-speakers from the western Carpathian region; others come from neighboring Romania or Moldova; so-called Ruska Roma hail from Russia; and there are communities of Muslim Roma from Crimea or Central Asia. All of them survived decades of communist rule, when official pressure to settle went hand in hand with educational quotas, promotion of their music and culture, and films about Roma striving to become full-fledged denizens of some "internationalist," racism-free, Soviet utopia.

Most Ukrainian Roma now are well-integrated, says Yurchenko says, with steady jobs and lifestyles that differ little from those of their neighbors. But he adds that they frequently hide their ethnic background -- like young Korzhov, admonished by his parents to keep quiet -- self-identifying as Greeks, Azeris, or Armenians.

Yurchenko estimates that there are still several thousand nomadic Roma, or "travelers," many of them impoverished Hungarian-speakers from the Carpathians, who distrust authorities and other Romany groups.

But the numbers are notoriously unreliable, says Anna Hrytsenko, a human rights activist based in the eastern city of Kharkiv. Such itinerant families "live in tent camps, without IDs, education, or normal jobs -- that's why they either collect scrap metal, or, as sometimes happens, are involved in petty crime."

"It's very hard for them to escape this situation by themselves, while the state and the public don't do anything to help them," she says, citing a reluctance on the part of many potential employers to hire Roma. "This is the problem no one wants to solve."

Joblessness is exacerbated by the current economic slowdown brought on in part by Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, an ongoing war with Moscow-backed separatists in the industrial Donbas region, and the related souring of economic ties with Russia.

Where To Turn?

After dozens of young men in balaclavas stormed a Romany encampment in a forested suburb of Lviv on May 10 -- burning down tents as the horrified "travelers" fled -- Yurchenko says it took him a week to convince a Romany man beaten up by the attackers to file a police complaint.

Police soon closed the investigation, calling the arson a case of "negligent use of fire."

The apparent lack of urgency, in the Lviv case, in both recent Kyiv incidents, and when more than a dozen masked men fired into the air and torched tents to evict Roma from another improvised camp in the western Ternopil region, concerns Romany activists and international rights groups.

"This is turning into a tendency, this is not just an accident," Mykola Burlutskiy, a Baptist pastor, who is Romany, from the eastern city of Kharkiv, tells RFE/RL. "People are depressed, they are frightened."

UN officials and the United States Embassy have urged Kyiv to investigate the recent attacks, but there has yet to be a single prosecution in any of the four cases.

Back in Lviv, Yurchenko fears that if authorities are slow to punish the perpetrators of such incidents, "a chain reaction" of violence could follow.

But he also finds hope in the younger generation of Roma eager for social justice.

"The youngsters are taking up the banner," Yurchenko says. "There's a new generation of [Romany] civil activists, there are more of them than us, and they're better educated."

* CORRECTION: This story has been amended to correct the first name of Ivan Korzhov. We regret the error.